The Cherbourg Project (or Boats of Cherbourg) was an Israeli military operation that took place on 24 December 1969, and involved the escape of five remaining unarmed Sa'ar 3 class boats from the French port of Cherbourg. The boats had been paid for by the Israeli government but had not been delivered due to the French arms embargo in 1969. The whole operation was planned by the Israeli Navy, and was codenamed Operation Noa, after the daughter of Captain Binyamin "Bini" Telem.
The Israeli naval command had reached the conclusion by the early 1960s that their old Second World War-era destroyers, frigates and corvettes were obsolete and new ships and vessels were needed. A survey was undertaken and the German shipyard of Lürssen was recommended. The shipyard was asked to design a new generation of small missile boat platforms and to modify the suggested wooden Jaguar-class torpedo boats according to Israeli Navy requirements. Due to Arab League pressure on the German government, this plan was not continued and a new builder was sought. The Israeli Navy survey recommended that the Cherbourg-based Félix Amiot would build the boats, based upon the German designs and plans. The boats and engines were German-designed, and constructed by the French. The project received the codename "Autumn".
Crews were sent to France in early 1965. The technical team was headed by Commander Haim Schachal. The administrative and operational side was headed by then-Captain Binyamin (Bini) Telem, who later became the Israeli Navy's commander in chief during the Yom Kippur war.
This was during the "Golden Age" of relations between Israel and France. After the Six-Day War, relations began to worsen. The French president — Charles de Gaulle — stopped the export of weapons to Israel.
In 1968, Israeli paratroopers commanded by then-Colonel Raphael Eitan (who later became IDF chief of staff), carried out a raid on Beirut airport during operations against the Palestine Liberation Organization. As a result, President de Gaulle ordered a full arms embargo on Israel, even for weapons that were ordered and paid by contract.
With his moratorium declaration, President de Gaulle cancelled the export license for the boats to Israel. However, he was afraid to cancel the working licenses of the shipyards due to riots sparked by recession and unemployment that had started in Paris. De Gaulle did not want to escalate the situation by adding additional unemployment and feared public opinion and the spread of the riots throughout France.
The resignation of de Gaulle and the election of Georges Pompidou to be the president of France inspired hope among the Israelis. The Israeli government assumed that Pompidou would lift the embargo, but Pompidou maintained it.
While the French government ordered an arms embargo on Israel, construction of the boats continued according to the original plan; and while the Israeli naval mission was in Cherbourg, controlling the project, Israeli crews were aboard the completed boats and the whole project was fully paid for by Israel.
The build-up of the Egyptian Navy with Soviet assistance during the 1960s and their procurement of new missile boats such as the Osa and Komar classes had, by the early days of the War of Attrition, changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean theatre in favour of Arab navies and away from the Israeli Navy. There was by now an urgent need for a new generation of vessels for the Israeli Navy. Israel had been developing seaborne surface-to-surface missiles, but the new vessels they would be launched from were now being built at Cherbourg. Their delivery to the Navy was considered a high priority by the Israeli Navy.
The loss of the destroyer INS Eilat during an attack by Komar-class missile boats in October 1967 and the accidental loss of the submarine INS Dakar in 1968, as well as the general ageing of the Israeli fleet, brought naval planners to the conclusion that the boats had to be taken from France by deception.
The plan to take the boats was formulated by retired Rear Admiral Mordechai "Mokka" Limon, formerly the Israeli Navy's commander in chief, who was the head of the Israel Defense Forces mission in Paris. Limon's affiliation with the Rothschild family provided him with important connections in France with the French government, and more widely in Europe as well.
During that period, several events worked in favor of the Israelis. In 1967, the seventh boat of the twelve boats ordered, INS Mivtach (Reliance), was completed and launched. A telecom from Israeli Navy command informed the Israelis in Cherbourg that the embargo was expected to escalate, and the boats would have to sail immediately to Haifa during sea trials, ignoring the French protocols for leaving port. This angered the French, and they ordered the Israeli Navy and the other boats to leave the French harbour, and dock instead at the commercial port, which was unguarded.
The boats were transferred to a front company called Starboat, registered in Panama, allegedly a Norwegian company for oil drills. The front company was Limon's idea, aided by his connections with Mila Brenner, a retired naval officer with a rank of commander and the owner of the Israel-based "Maritime Fruit Carriers", a company that operated cargo ships transporting fruit. Milla Brenner knew the Norwegian businessman Martin Siem, who was able to provide assistance. The front company people were Mossad members led by Benyamin Vered, one of the highest ranking commanders of Mossad.
The front company feigned interest in the boats as potential survey ships for searching for oil, and declared that the boats' specifications met their needs. To add to the deception Limon pretended to have "tough negotiations" with Starboat. The terms agreed were that the boats would be transferred to Starboat and would be crewed by members of the Israeli Navy due to their experience with the boats. The boats were sold and transferred legally by the government of Israel to the front company with the approval of Michel Debré, the French Defense Minister. This was the first part of the deception.
The next stage of the operation was to build a day-to-day routine with the aim of ultimately misleading the French at Cherbourg. Israeli skeleton crews took over the boats and maintained a routine of short voyages, heading north into the Atlantic. The skeleton crews were secretly reinforced by 80 Israeli officers, ratings and sailors in civilian clothes who arrived in groups of two at different destinations throughout Europe as tourists, and then travelled to Cherbourg. It was feared that sending them all to Cherbourg at once would alert French intelligence. They were ordered to keep moving between hotels, and not to stay in any one hotel for more than one night. The crews traveled on Israeli passports so that in the event they were caught, they could not be charged with passport fraud. By 23 December, all crews had arrived, and were scattered around the city.
Prior to the escape, the boats had to be fuelled with large amount of diesel and stocked with enough food to sustain an eight-day voyage. Stocking and fueling this amount all at once could have alerted observers to the fact that a long voyage was planned. Commander Rinat, the head of operations, instead ordered the boats to be gradually fuelled using a small 5-ton tank truck. A quarter of a million litres of fuel was smuggled in drums and hidden belowdecks. By 24 December, the boats had been fully fuelled and stored. The supply officer bought fresh and dry food from local grocery stores to stock on the boats. To prevent arousing suspicion, the supplies were purchased in small quantities each time.
Since sudden engine noise during the night of the escape would alert the French, the operation's commander, Captain Hadar Kimhi, ordered the boats' engines to be regularly started at nights, causing the inhabitants of Cherbourg to become accustomed to the noise. The local police visited the boats in response to inhabitants' complaints, and received the explanations that the electrical supply from the shore was not enough to warm the boats during the cold days of December. The boats received an authorization from the electrical company and police to operate their engines at night. The noise was loud with twenty Maybach main engines running.
Meanwhile, the ZIM navigation company Europe Lines were approached to help in providing fuel, once the boats had left Cherbourg. Assistance was provided by Edmond Wilhelm Brillant, a retired navy officer and a naval architect. He designated MV Lea to provide fuel at Gibraltar and MV Nahariya as a backup in the Bay of Biscay (both general cargo ships that were available at that time). The main difficulty at this stage of the plan was the conversion of MV Lea into a fuelling ship carrying 200,000 litres of light diesel fuel. This was solved by conversion of the ballast tank in the ship's bow and bottom into a fuel tank. The pump system was converted to operate as both a fire fighting and fueling pump. Special high pressure hoses were used and a fueling drill was developed prior sailing to the rendezvous point near Gibraltar. According to international maritime regulations, MV Lea could not sail since safety regulations banned ships from carrying fuel in the bow as fuel vapour may cause an explosion. This issue was solved by Brillant with the aid of Kirstine shipyards and a Lloyd's Register surveyor. Additionally, a special filter was needed to make sure no dirt from tanks would contaminate the boat's tanks and engines. This filter was improvised by Brillant. It was capable of fuelling five boats, but only two at a time were fueled at the ship's stern. The overall conversion and drill took twelve hours. Other Zim divisions provided the Dan, a Ro-Ro ship sister of MV Nili which would provide fuel near Lampedusa. Captain of MV Dan was Yosef Dror, a retired Navy officer (Commander) and Shayetet 13 commando frogman. In this case, tanker trailers were loaded in the ship's garage. These Zim ships sailed with additional crew made up of members of the Israeli Navy.
The boats were to escape on Christmas Eve. On the eve of the escape, the skeleton crews continued to maintain the boats, while the 80 crews who came to reinforce them hid belowdecks. The Israelis feared that the boats could sink while sailing through the Bay of Biscay in severe winter conditions. The group had a meteorologist assigned to them, who monitored all British, French and Spanish weather forecasts. Despite a forecast predicting rain from the south-west, the crews were ordered to sail out at 20:30. By 19:30, all crews were aboard. There was a force 9 storm on the night of the escape, and after the weather worsened, the departure time was extended to 22:30, but the escape was again delayed by worsening weather. Captain Hadar Kimhi received urgent coded messages from Israel ordering him to set sail despite the weather, but he decided to wait. At midnight, the meteorologist picked up a BBC report indicating that the storm would die down in two hours. At 2:30 am, the boats left Cherbourg and headed slowly out to sea.
The French were initially unaware that the Israeli boats had left port, and their absence was noticed by a reporter who visited the port and saw that all the boats were missing. He immediately reported it to the BBC almost 12 hours after the escape, and so the French authorities learned of the boats' disappearance from the BBC. The empty berths and an absence of any announcement of the embargo's termination caused speculation that Israel had taken the boats. A television news team flew out over the North Sea to see if the boats were heading towards Norway, to where they had ostensibly been sold, while other news crews headed out over the Mediterranean. The boats crossed the Bay of Biscay before turning south and crossing into the Mediterranean, meeting Israeli support ships along the way. During fuelling by MV Lea at Gibraltar, one of the Israeli navy crew members mistakenly allowed water into the fuel tanks of INS Hetz (Arrow). It was not initially known whether the water was seawater; if it was, it could not be drained and may damage the engines. Commander Rinat asked the crew to taste the fuel and to indicate if it was salty or not. Having determined that it was not seawater, the tanks were drained.
As the boats passed Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, the British monitoring station flashed a signal, asking the boats to identify themselves. The boats gave no reply, and a Lloyd's helicopter circling over them detected no flags or identity numbers. The British personnel, who had heard the media reports of the disappearance of the Israeli boats from Cherbourg, correctly guessed the boat's nationalities and true destination, then flashed the signal "bon voyage". The Israelis took it as a signal that the British understood who they were. The boats were finally spotted by television crews in the Mediterranean as they travelled fast towards Israel, hugging the coast of North Africa. Near Crete, Israeli Air Force F-4 Phantom fighters met up with the boats and flew low overhead in escort.
French Defence Minister Michel Debré ordered an air strike to sink the boats. The French Chief of Staff refused to obey and replied he would resign rather than obey the order. The order was countermanded by Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, who prevented any further escalation. Although the French government was furious, it realized that there was little that could be done, since the boats were already on the high seas when the ruse was uncovered. French Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann warned that if the boats appeared in Israel, "the consequences will be very grave indeed".
The Israeli boats sailed a total of 3,145 nmi (5,825 km; 3,619 mi), beginning in the English Channel, and arriving at the Kishon Shipyard port in Haifa bay on 31 December. The boats were met with public jubilation when they arrived in Israel.
The Navy's commander in chief during the operation was Rear-Admiral Avraham Botzer (Cheetah). The commanding officer of the operation was Captain Hadar Kimhi (later Commodore commander of Haifa Navy-Base and Naval Attaché in Britain during the 1973 Yom Kippur War), with Commander Ezra Kedm Krishinski, nicknamed Karish (Shark) as his deputy (later on Commodore and commander of the Red Sea theatre). The boats were:
- INS Sufa (Storm), skipper Lt. Ronna Arie
- INS Ga'ash (Volcano), skipper Lt. Gil Koren
- INS Herev (Sword), skipper Lt. Commander Gadi Ben Zeev
- INS Hanit (Spear), skipper Lt. Commander Haim Shaked
- INS Hetz (Arrow), skipper Commander Moshe Tabak
Two young officers in the operation, Tal and Michael — Ram, went on to become commanders in chief of the navy.
The boats' names while being operated by the oil drilling company were Starboat 1,2,3,4 and 5. The boats joined the already acquired INS Sa'ar to form the Sa'ar 3-class missile boats.
The French government expelled Mordechai Limon from France. It was said that the French president stated "I do not like tea with Lemon and Mokka coffee". Generals Louis Bonte and Bernard Cazelles were suspended by the government. Instead Israel turned to American supplies of weapons and support. The Israeli Air Force began to be equipped by American aircraft, while the United States Navy started to train the Israeli Navy's high command and increased the level of naval cooperation.
According to British intelligence writer Gordon Thomas, following the affair, Mossad agents were watched "as closely as any terrorist" when they were deployed to France to track down and kill Middle Eastern terrorists. Many times, terrorists would escape after being tipped off by a pro-Arab French intelligence officer.
Missile boat flotilla
The boats taken from Cherbourg were still unarmed platforms on their arrival in Israel. They were brought into the navy and armed with Gabriel missiles and ECM and EW systems produced by MABAT and RAFAEL.[not in citation given] Their commissioning into the Israeli Navy was overseen by Commodore Yehoshua Lahav Schneidemesser, a Haganah member who had volunteered with the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and who was at the time the division head of Navy – Equipment and Platforms.
The flotilla's working up was overseen by Captain Hadar Kimhi, who was later promoted to Commodore commanding the Naval base of Haifa. New concepts of sea missile warfare was developed by the navy and new ECM/EW techniques were developed with the leadership of Captain Herut Zemach who was awarded the Israel Defense Prize for his efforts, creating a new generation of missile boats. Later, new Israeli Sa'ar boats were developed and built in Haifa Shipyards under the leadership of Haim Schachal, the chief engineer of the Israel Shipyards.[not in citation given] Two of the boats were launched a few months before the Yom Kippur War, INS Reshef (Flash) and INS Keshet (Bow), Sa'ar 4 class missile boats. For his leadership, Schachal was awarded the Israel Defense Prize. The Israeli Navy went on to win the sea battles with the Egyptian and Syrian navies with zero casualties and losses. The Israeli Navy became a pioneer in modern naval missile warfare, resulting in their successes in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Videos and recordings
- Experiments of RAFAEL Gabriel Missile
- Geva News arrival of the boats to Kishon harbor Haifa December 1969
- Video taken from INS Gaash (Vulcano) showing fueling from M.V Lea stern.The officer with the radio is Commander Ezra Kedem Carish (Shark)
- Video of the boats arrival to Haifa and Charles De Gaulle's speech in the French TV and Israeli TV
- on YouTube
- IDF Radio an interview with Mordechi Mokka Limon, start time 45:13 in Hebrew
- on YouTube
- on YouTube
- on YouTube
- on YouTube
- on YouTube
- Abraham Rabinovich. "Israel Military Intelligence: The Boats of Cherbourg". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- "Shahal (Laibel) Haim, Son of Shlomo". Palmach Information Center. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- "Egyptian Missile Boats Komar sank the Israeli INS Eilat on 21 October 1967". militaryphotos.net. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo%3D550591. Retrieved 22 April 2010. Missing or empty
- Thomas Gordon (1999). Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad. St Martins Press. ASIN B000OTHCB2.
- https://web.archive.org/web/20111002121620/http://www.photoship.co.uk/JAlbum%20Ships/Old%20Ships%20L/slides/Lea-01.html. Archived from the original on 2 October 2011. Retrieved 19 April 2010. Missing or empty
- https://web.archive.org/web/20111002121628/http://www.photoship.co.uk/JAlbum%20Ships/Old%20Ships%20N/slides/Nili-01.html. Archived from the original on 2 October 2011. Retrieved 21 April 2010. Missing or empty
- Ami Isseroff. "Shayetet 13". Zionism and Israel Information Center. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- Abraham Rabinovich (June 4, 2009). "A civilian caper". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- "Haifa Port". GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- Shalom Eitan (1998). לשרוד ולספר (Lisrod U-lesaper) [To Survive and Tell] (in Hebrew). Lance Ackerfeld, translator.
- Rabinovich The Boats of Cherbourg Bluejacket Books ISBN 1-55750-714-7 ISBN 978-1557507143
- Avi Brillant The Perfect Sting Magazin 13 January 2010 in Hebrew
- Moshe Levi The Escape of the Boats of Cherbourg Intreviews with Hadar Kimhi, Binyamin Telem and Rinat Arie Magazin 1 February 2007 in Hebrew
- The day the French learned about Israeli "hutzpa"
- Abraham Rabinovich (24 December 2009). "Escape from Cherbourg". The Jerusalem Post.
- Yossi Melman (20 April 2005). דיסקרטי (המשך) [Discrete (continued)]. Haaretz (in Hebrew). Retrieved 16 September 2014. Binyamin Vered and Mossad activity in Starboat.
- "Gunboats Due in Israel". The Spokesman-Review. Spokane. 29 December 1969. p. 1.
- The last Battle of the Destroyer INS Eilat by Commander Yitzhak Shushan. Maariv Publishing House. 1993.
- "Home to Haifa". Plumbat affair.
- Photos from Cherbourg and early days
- "Oslo Rep Had Ties to Israel". The Times-News. Hendersonville, N.C. 29 December 1969. p. 2.
- American Jewish Yearbook 1970 Page 496
- TIME World: Israel's Fugitive Flotilla Monday, 12 January, 1970
- "Las cinco cañoneras de Cherburgo están ya cerca de Israel" [The five gunboats of Cherbourg are already near Israel]. La Vanguardia Española (in Spanish). 30 December 1969. p. 19.
- Strategic Intelligence, Volume 1 By Loch K. Johnson page 77 ISBN 978-1931719278